Gates Reaffirms U.S. Presence in Asia at Summit
BY WENDELL MINNICK
SINGAPORE - The U.S. will continue to honor its commitments and responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific region "no matter which political party occupies the White House next year," U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told delegation members at the 7th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue, held here from May 30 to June 1.
"For those who worry that Iraq and Afghanistan have distracted the United States from Asia and developments here, I would counter that we have never been more engaged with more Asian countries," said Gates, who has visited Asia four times in his 18-month tenure as secretary of defense.
"Secretary Gates provided the kind of strategic reassurance badly needed by the region," said Kurt Campbell, CEO of the Center for a New American Security.
Retired U.S. Rear Adm. Michael McDevitt of the CNA Corp. observed the reassurance of continued U.S. engagement in Asia was needed, and the Shangri-La Dialogue served as an "excellent" venue for his message.
"Clearly, he was intent on reassuring listeners that the U.S. intended to stay engaged in the region because it was in our interests to do so, and that we had the military capability to do so, since air and naval power are the most relevant forces for the region," he said.
Campbell said there is a need for balance, however, in U.S. declarations concerning the War on Terror.
"While [Paul] Wolfowitz and [Donald] Rumsfeld drummed on this issue to the exclusion of all others, barely mentioning Asia in their early Shangri-La speeches, Gates did not even utter the word," said Campbell, who served previously as both the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific and director on the National Security Council staff.
He argues the U.S. is trying to strike a balance between a dangerous Middle East while recognizing and meeting Asian challenges.
"Finding that balance has been virtually impossible for anyone in the Bush Administration - with the notable exception of Gates - and it will be left to the new president to see if his or her administration can do better," he said.
Gates emphasized three critical points during his speech. First, the U.S. is a "Pacific nation" with territory in the Asia-Pacific extending from the Aleutian Islands down to Guam. Second, in reference to freedom of the seas and respect for the Law of the Sea, the U.S. supports "openness, against exclusivity, and in favor of common use of spaces." Third, future Asia security policy will be based on "strong and enduring interests in the region."
"I thought formulation that the U.S. was a 'resident power' was a clever new way of reinforcing the notion that we have vital interests in the region that we are not going to abandon. His arguments about common spaces, inclusivity (open door) rather than exclusivity - are traditional, but repackaged nicely," said McDevitt, who served as the director of the East Asia Policy Office for the secretary of defense during the first Bush administration.
Bush also noted the "stirrings of a new regionalism, a pan-Asia search for new frameworks to encompass and thereby moderate inter-state competition.
"The search for this regional architecture will continue - after all, one can hardly suggest that it is appropriate for Europe, the Middle East and Africa to develop regional security institutions, but not for Asia to do so," he said.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, believes the U.S. presence in Asia remains strong, as does its commitment. However, he argues that U.S. capabilities are limited as far as crisis response may be concerned.
"Obviously, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il does not lose much sleep worrying about an American invasion - but it can still project air and sea power into the region (including against North Korea) at will and remains a powerful stabilizing and deterrent force," he said.
Gates reiterated the U.S. position that North Korea will continue to be the focus of denuclearization drives. The next administration will inherit "an agenda of especially worrying issues."
"This means no change in our drive to temper North Korea's ambitions, a policy not possible without China's valued cooperation. Beyond this center stage issue, I suspect that the new administration will also find strategic inspiration in America's dual role - as a resident power and as the 'straddle power' across the Asia Pacific," Gates said.